Welcome to the beginning of May.
This is it! In the middle of winter, when it seemed like the sun rose around noon and set 30 minutes later – when it felt as though the drizzle would never stop – when the cold seemed as if it had penetrated inside our very bones – this is the day we imagined.
It’s no longer April with its showers. It’s no longer preparation. This is not a drill. We are in the joyous season!
It’s time to get your hands dirty in the earth – time to plant something – time to feel love stirring in your heart – time to rejoice at the abundance of nature’s gifts.
When agrarian culture dominated these isles, the beginning of May represented the beginning of the vital, warm, light, creative and abundant half of the year.
This time was celebrated with fertility rites – for animals and plants and – of course – humans were deeply involved in those rites as well.
A 16th century writer described in his suitably Puritan way the happenings of the rites of this time
“I have heard it credibly reported by men of great gravity, credit and reputation; that of forty, threescore or a hundred maids going to the woods over night, there have scarcely the third part of them returned home again undefiled.”
It was apparently that kind of a celebration.
We have, of course, lost much of our ancestors’ connection to the natural world.
In more recent times – with industrialization and its radical overhaul of how we live and work – the first of May took on a new meaning. It became known as International Worker’s Day.
The old May Day was marked by celebration of the coming of light and warmth and by prayers for a rich and healthy growing season. The new one saw workers joining together to demand more humane working conditions – and in particular, they sought a set length of the working day at 8 hours as workers - now disconnected from the seasons and rhythms of the earth - sought to regain some control of the cycles of their lives.
The old May Day celebrated the return of the light – the new one pleaded for a chance to be outside of the dark factories during the hours of light.
I do not want to idealize or romanticize the nature of pre-industrial life. In fact, the “good old days” were never that good. They meant a deeply uncertain and risk-filled life for most people. Life was often brutal and brief.
And industrialization was by no means a bad thing overall. Many of us would not be alive today if it were not for the medical advances made possible by modern science. Most of us who did survive would not be able to get here today and the ones who lived close enough to walk would probably be too busy working the fields to make it to this service. Most of those of us who did make it here would be malnourished, and unable to read the words of the hymns for lack of glasses – if we even had books or a building!
But along with the advances of modernity came innovations and structures that are not nearly so positive. We have become disconnected from nature – the inspiration of so much of the life of the spirit. We may find we have little time to reflect and just to be – as it is not simply our bodies tied to work but our minds as well.
And sadly, we human beings have created a system of progress and growth that requires suffering among us – with enormous wealth and comfort amassing at one end of the economic spectrum and deprivation at the other.
Even in Britain, with our tilt toward socialism and pluralism, the income and wealth disparities continue to grow. Class differences have remained a fact of life so that the particularities of our births predetermine our potential in life.
The capitalist industrial system must have ever more customers to survive. We have been transformed into earning and buying machines – stimulated and manipulated by advertising that understands our psychology so well that we don’t even recognize the deep levers being pulled to get the desired effect: the all-important purchase.
Modernity has also provided us with ways to magnify the destructive impulses that have always been with us. Along with Beltane and International Workers’ Day, today is also Yom HaShoah – the day commemorating the systematic, organized, industrialized slaughter of the Second World War - industrialization seen at its very worst.
Today, we are able to carry out our military attacks at such a distance that the effects on real human beings are all but invisible to us – like a real-life video game - the casualties mount with each remotely viewed explosion.
Something is very wrong with the way we live today. We all know it. We try to resist it. We try to fight it. And it is hard to keep hope alive that change will ever come.
Sharon Welch blames God. Welch is a feminist theologian and professor at Harvard Divinity School and it’s not exactly God she blames for our situation and our lack of hope, but the traditional notion so many hold. And whether or not we believe in that kind of God, his image – and I say “his” deliberately here – is suffused throughout our culture.
That image is of a deity so far beyond us that we cannot understand the world around us. He is a god that must be greater and we must be lesser. He is a god that holds and uses limitless power over his creation.
And with this as the story we all have somewhere in the back of our minds, the use of concentrated power seems the natural way to create and organize and develop our world. Words like conquer and defeat and win and rule are all normal in a world of power.
Also expected in such a world is a definitive right and wrong. The answer is that something is wrong and must be set right. Someone needs to do that. Someone needs to fix it.
In contrast, Welch’s feminist theology begins, not with a power from above, but with a sacred participation from below. She asks us to look to humankind – and to look first to the power-less. She tells us that the true test for any theology is that it makes us “more capable of love” – that it “encourages…the liberation of the individual and the community.”
There is no right answer. Here, Welch’s feminist theology agrees with post-modern theology and philosophy – the answers are what we create amid our differences. It is not about banging out a consensus but creating a world where we can talk to and understand and care for one another – even though we share no consensus.
This is a theology of relationship. It calls not for powerful solutions, but for powerful connections – not for powerful leaders, but powerful communion among the diverse members of the human species.
Another feminist theologian – Carter Hayward – puts God within our relationships, saying:
“… god is nothing other than the eternally creative source of our relational power, our common strength, a god whose movement is to empower, … a god whose name in history is love—provided we mean by "love" not just simply a sentiment or unfocused feeling but rather that which is just, mutually empowering, and co-creative.”
The first of May is about nothing if it is not about relationship. Today, we celebrate the return of fertility and creativity to the land and to life.
That kind of creativity is not something we do alone. The kind of creativity we need to create saner lives for ourselves and one another is not something we do alone.
It is in our connection – in our relationship – in the creative love we share.